January 2012, Week 3


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Tue, 17 Jan 2012 20:48:02 -0500
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Cult of Personality

By John Feffer 
Foreign Policy in Focus 
January 17, 2012


He is, in the words of Barbara Walters, a "mild- mannered
ophthalmologist." Indeed, the rather squeamish leader-to-be
chose eye surgery because it didn't involve much blood. He
speaks fluent English and can get by in French as well as his
native Arabic. His wife is a knock-out, a "rose in the
desert" according to a Vogue profile. Reluctant to take over
the family business from his father, he interrupted his
medical training in London to return home only after his
older brother died in a car accident. Then, once at the helm,
he released a number of political prisoners and instituted
economic reforms that got a thumbs-up from the international
business community. He cooperated with the United States in
the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Even today, he uses all the
right words: transparency, dignity, reform.

Bashar al-Assad has also proven to be a ruthless dictator
whose crackdown on internal dissent has left more than 5,000
Syrians dead. What happened to the reluctant eye surgeon
committed to modernizing his country along Western lines?

Assad is the not the first young reformer to turn out to be a
fanatical defender of the ancien regime. In Libya, the London
School of Economics-educated Saif al- Islam Gaddafi put
himself forward as a voice for reform only to become, when
push came to shove, a diehard defender of his father's
tyrannical rule. To bolster claims that he was a closet
reformer, "Baby Doc" Duvalier released some political
prisoners when he took over in Haiti after his dictator
father died in 1971, but he eventually fled the country 15
years later with the blood of thousands on his hands. Gamal
Mubarak "has been the leading voice in favour of change
within the government and the ruling party," argued Lord
Peter Mandelson shortly before Egyptians successfully ousted
the elder Mubarak and exposed the son's corrupt, U.S.-
assisted dealings.

It's not just the sons of dictators that fool outsider
observers into equating youth with change. Meles Zenawi was
only 36 when he became the president of Ethiopia in 1991.
Widely viewed as a "reformer" by the West, Zenawi has been at
the helm for the last 20 years, his rule marked by electoral
fraud, considerable repression in parts of the country, and
military intervention in Somalia. Yoweri Musaveni took over
Uganda at the age of 47 and was widely heralded as part of a
new generation of African democrats, but war and domestic
oppression have characterized his long reign as well.

 Nor are democracies immune from this particular political
fallacy. Young voices for change (Tony Blair, Barack Obama)
often align themselves with powerful economic and political
interests (the military, the financial sector), and end up
strengthening the very status quo they promised to change.

Newcomers, however committed to change they might be at a
personal level, rarely have the institutional clout to make
their mark. As they consolidate power, power in turn
transforms them. Paradoxically, it's often the old-timers who
end up transforming the systems that produced them. The party
hacks are the ones who hack apart the party. Taking down a
system is easier if you know the system's weak points from
the inside. And if you rise to the top of the system, you by
definition have a base of support from which to operate.

Mikhail Gorbachev was an apparatchik of long standing, a true
believer who ultimately restructured the Soviet Union out of
existence. F.W. de Klerk was not only an architect of
apartheid but widely considered one of the more conservative
National Party members, until he changed his mind, his party,
and along with Nelson Mandela and the African National
Congress, all of South Africa. The jury is still out on
Burmese President Thein Sein, but as a military man and junta
leader who has so far initiated some important reforms, he
may well have set out on the same trajectory as Gorbachev and
de Klerk. None of these figures, of course, did it by
themselves. Behind them, both inside and outside the system,
stood powerful movements for change.

We ridicule countries that operate cults of personality -
North Korea, Uzbekistan - and pat ourselves on the back that
we reserve such embarrassing displays of adulation for guys
who throw balls, gals who star in reality shows, and
teenagers who sing pop music. At least our American idols
don't kill people. But alongside our celebration of
celebrities, we also have a stealth personality cult: We
insist, overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that only
individuals, not institutions, make history. We are
constantly on the lookout for the heroic leader who can
single-handedly transform the warp and weave of their
society. When a movement is leaderless like Occupy Wall
Street or the leadership is dispersed as with so much of the
Arab Spring, we're not quite sure what to make of it. We are
trapped in the personality cult that our culture of
individualism has created.

So, when a transition takes place, as in North Korea, we ask
all the wrong questions: who is Kim Jong Un, what are his
politics, has his Swiss education influenced him, who are the
individuals behind Kim Jong Un, will the young Kim transform
his country? But to understand the future of North Korea, you
must understand the key institutions in the society - the
party, the military, and now the rising economic elite. Kim
Jong Un's possible love of fondue or American basketball is
largely irrelevant. Just as the North Korean authorities are
preparing the groundwork for the new leader's personality
cult, we unconsciously perform the rites of our own
analytical personality cult by focusing on Kim Jong Un's
personal predilections.

We made the same mistake with Bashar al-Assad when we assumed
that his personality would shape the Syrian system rather
than the other way around. Now that he has proven to be a
tyrant in disguise, he must go. "One-man rule and the
perpetuation of family dynasties, monopolies of wealth and
power, the silencing of the media, the deprivation of
fundamental freedoms that are the birthright of every man,
woman and child on this planet. To all of this, the people
say: enough!" UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said in his
recent message to Assad and Syria. It was rather naïve to
expect Assad, the product not only of his father but of his
father's system, to do the Oedipal thing and kill his
father's legacy.

Some in the West have been tempted to call for a Libya- style
intervention to support the opposition and remove Assad. As
Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Paul Mutter points
out in Salon, a range of voices from neoconservatives to
liberals are beginning to raise the intervention possibility
more vigorously. "It is hard for most people to watch the
slaughter of innocent civilians in Syria without advocating
military intervention from Western countries," writes FPIF
senior analyst Adil Shamoo in Syria's Revolution Will
Succeed. "However, even with the most morally upright
intentions, such interventions are ripe with potential for
abuse. An open-ended policy of military intervention is too
easily exploited by those who would pursue it for political
or economic ends, including not least for control of natural

It's not just a matter of removing the "mild-mannered
ophthalmologist" from his perch. Assad represents a large
ruling elite aligned with the Alawite religious group, which
makes up a not inconsiderable 12 percent of the Syrian
population. Civil war indeed beckons, not because Assad is a
charismatic leader who commands allegiance, but because his
downfall could spell the loss of influence for a large class
of people who can't see how they would fit into a post-Assad
order. Getting rid of the problematic personality at the top
is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for change.
It's the entire Syrian political structure that must change.
As an operation to save Syria, outside military intervention
at this point would likely create more bloodshed than it
would prevent. Assad, the squeamish eye doctor, has betrayed
his erstwhile profession by spilling so much blood. The
international community should not make the same mistake.


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